Designated Orders: Betrayals of Intuition – Omitted Petitioners and Error Correction under Rule 155 – 8/20 – 8/24/2018

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We welcome Patrick Thomas who brings us this week’s designated orders.  The last week of orders that fell to Patrick ended up in a three part series plus an extra article written by William Schmidt.  He gets off a bit easier this time.  Keith 

A huge thanks to the judges of the United States Tax Court for issuing few substantive designated orders during the first week of classes. We only have three orders deserving discussion this week. Other designated orders included four orders from Judge Jacobs: a routine scheduling order, an order allowing petitioner’s counsel to withdraw, and two discovery orders in the same case.

Judge Halpern also dismissed the Krug v. Commissioner case on his own motion because the Petitioner failed to prosecute the case. Krug, which we covered previously, raised interesting substantive issues about withholding on prisoner income in the whistleblower context. Sadly, we won’t see a substantive conclusion to this case for the time being.

For the cases that follow, I must admit I rolled my eyes a bit at the results. Both betrayed my own intuition of how the cases ought to be resolved—though ultimately for somewhat good reasons. The first case strikes me as reaching for a technical result without consideration of the practicalities of pro se taxpayers, while I find the second correctly decided, even if clearly erroneous as to the ultimate tax result.

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Docket No. 6155-17, Heath v. C.I.R. (Order Here)

Judge Armen’s order in Heath highlights an issue that LITC practitioners see from time to time. Taxpayers file a joint return; the IRS then conducts an audit and issues a Notice of Deficiency to both taxpayers. For whatever reason, only one taxpayer signs and files a Tax Court petition. Trouble ensues.

Taxpayers who owe a debt relating to a jointly filed tax return are, under section 6013(d)(3), jointly and severally liable for that debt. Thus, the Service can levy both taxpayers’ assets to satisfy the liability. This applies not only to self-assessed debts reported on a return, but also to debts arising from a Notice of Deficiency. Under section 6213(a), the Service may neither assess nor collect such a deficiency-related debt until 90 days after issuing the Notice of Deficiency. If the taxpayer files a petition in Tax Court, this prohibition lasts until the case becomes final.

What happens if only one taxpayer subject to a joint Notice of Deficiency files in Tax Court? Assessment and collection against that taxpayer is barred under section 6213. But the Service may and will assess the tax (90 days after issuance of the Notice of Deficiency) against the other joint filer.

That other filer can get into the Tax Court case—and receive protection against assessment and collection—in certain circumstances. To do so, this “omitted” petitioner would need to either (1) file their own petition before the 90 days expires or (2) cause the already-filed petitioner to amend their petition under Rule 41.

An omitted petitioner may always successfully get into Tax Court before the 90 days expires, but after that, the omitted petitioner’s options are limited by that veritable refrain: “The Tax Court is a court of limited jurisdiction.” Under Rule 34, the Tax Court views jurisdiction as depending on the timely filing of a petition on the part of each petitioner subject to a Notice of Deficiency.

Thus, the individual prohibition on assessment and collection for the petitioning spouse is of limited value, especially where the spouses have joint liquid assets or the non-petitioning spouse earns the majority of household income. In these cases, taxpayers must simultaneously prosecute their cases in Tax Court and defend themselves against IRS Collections. Even outside of those situations, no one likes IRS notices coming through the mail, regardless to whom they’re addressed. The notices must undoubtedly confuse the taxpayers, who believed they had successfully petitioned the Tax Court for a fresh look at their case.

Why would a spouse fail to sign a Tax Court petition? In one of my cases, my client’s spouse passed away before the audit even began, and my client couldn’t afford to open an estate to obtain authority to sign the petition on behalf of her deceased husband.

In others, the tax issue may result solely from one spouse’s income or other tax issue. Knowing this, a pro se petitioner may not realize that both spouse’s signatures are required on the petition. They may view the tax dispute as only that spouse’s problem—one that that spouse will resolve independently.

There are also very limited indications to pro se taxpayers that both spouses must sign a Tax Court petition to avoid IRS Collections. While Notices of Deficiency are issued to both spouses, those living at the same address may just see this as typical IRS notice duplication. The Tax Court form petition, while suggesting “Spouse” as an example of an “additional petitioner”, gives no clear indication that failure of both spouses to sign could lead to these very serious consequences.

Nevertheless, Rule 60(a) provides an opening if the original petitioner can show that they also brought the case on behalf of the omitted petitioner. The omitted petitioner may thereby “ratify” the original petition, which will date back to the time of filing under Rule 41. To do so, the original petitioner must show that they (1) were authorized to file the petition on behalf of the omitted petitioner and (2) objectively intended to do so.  Indicia of objective intent appear to be: the original petition’s caption; pronoun usage in the petition and attachments (i.e., first-person plural vs. singular); and the delay between the petition’s filing and attempts to correct the petition.

The substantive dispute in Heath centers on two Schedule K-1s issued to Mrs. Heath. She disputes having an ownership interest in the issuing organization for this tax year. (Accordingly, Judge Armen denies the Service’s motion for partial summary judgment on this issue, as it was sufficiently disputed as to make summary judgment inappropriate.)

But only Mrs. Heath filed and signed the petition. Eventually, Mrs. Heath retained counsel (the Tax Clinic at the Chicago-Kent College of Law), who noticed the issue and seeking to add Mr. Heath to the Tax Court case, filed the present motion.

Judge Armen denies the motion, running through a number of factors that indicate Mrs. Heath’s lack of objective intent to file a motion on her husband’s behalf. These include:

  • – She handwrote, filed, and signed the petition on her own
  • – She captioned the case in her name alone
  • – She used first-person pronoun in the petition and various attachments
  • – Counsel noted in the motion that “the underlying tax issue had nothing to do with [Mr. Heath] and ‘arose before they were married.’ ”
  • – Counsel didn’t enter an appearance for husband.
  • – The motion was filed one year after the petition and six months after Counsel entered his appearance
  • – The motion was filed in response to IRS collection activities
  • – No ratification was filed with the motion (but was filed later)

Of these reasons, only two appear relevant to me: (1) Mrs. Heath captioned the case in her name alone and (2) a ratification wasn’t filed until the Court’s order in June 2018.

The rest are tautological, irrelevant, or—with more explanation—not indicative of a lack of intent. All cases involving these disputes will, without question, involve a petitioner who signed and filed the petition herself. Most such cases will also involve adjustments that only pertain to one petitioner; petitioner’s admission thereof in this motion thus doesn’t seem terribly relevant to this inquiry. Handwriting a petition seems neutral on the intent question. Finally, first-person singular language may be relevant, but in the seminal case on this topic, Brooks v. Commissioner, 63 T.C. 709 (1975), such language was present, yet the Court found an objective intent to file a petition on behalf of the taxpayer’s wife.

The timing issues all seem consistent with the underlying causes of petitioner’s challenge in Brooks: the petitioner first raises the issue once he or she notices it. In Brooks, a petition was filed in December 1974 and Brooks began challenging the issue in February 1975—fairly quick! But Brooks had a cue that the Heaths lacked: Respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. Because Mr. Brooks included Mrs. Brooks in the caption, but she didn’t sign the petition, Respondent sought to remove him from the case.

Here, only Mrs. Heath appeared on the caption. So, Respondent didn’t bug the Heaths about the issue. Only after the Service’s machinery (1) assessed the tax, and (2) started sending notices to the Heaths, could they have possibly discovered that Mr. Heath was in jeopardy. So yes—of course, the Heaths only took steps to resolve the issue once they discovered it, through the collection notices sent to Mr. Heath. The petition was filed on March 13, 2017, meaning that the IRS likely didn’t start sending out notices until mid-summer 2017 at the earliest. Counsel was retained in September 2017. Admittedly, the motion wasn’t filed until March 2018, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate Mrs. Heath’s lack of an objective intent to file a petition on behalf of her husband. The Heaths were also sorting through respondent’s motion for summary judgment at the time.

Finally, Counsel could not have easily entered an appearance for husband through the Court’s electronic filing system. Mr. Heath was not a party to the case in September 2017, so he would not appear as a party one could represent when e-filing an entry of appearance. While a paper could be filed purporting to represent Mr. Heath, the electronic filing system would treat the paper’s caption as applicable only to Mrs. Heath. Moreover, this factor seems only tangentially relevant to the underlying issue: did Mrs. Heath intend to file a petition on behalf of Mr. Heath?

More fundamentally, what does it mean to have intent to file a petition at all? Must Mrs. Heath have intended to file a particular piece of paper on behalf of Mr. Heath? Why is that so seemingly important to the jurisdictional question?

The Court might reframe its intent analysis in terms of the petition’s function—not the petition as a document. A timely filed petition provides (1) independent judicial review of the Service’s determination and (2) protection from assessment and collection while that review occurs. Surely Mrs. Heath desired this both for herself and her husband—particularly if they shared joint assets or income. There may be circumstances where spouses do not intend those results; the Court could decline to exercise jurisdiction in such a case.

Notwithstanding that she likely possessed that intent, Mrs. Heath likely finds herself subject to IRS collections while the Tax Court case proceeds. It appears as if she believed the issue shouldn’t ultimately have anything to do with her husband, given her substantive argument that the Schedules K-1 are incorrect. Whether she knew the adverse consequences of failing to file a joint petition seems irrelevant.

In any case, Judge Armen denies the motion, but suggests that the IRS defer collections administratively. Here’s hoping that Counsel follows that reasonable suggestion.

Docket No. 23891-15, Muhammad v. C.I.R. (Orders Here and Here)

This case had two orders: one on Respondents motion for entry of decision under Rule 155 and one on Respondent’s motion to reopen to supplement the record per Graev III. Ultimately, Judge Gustafson grants the latter motion, because petitioner didn’t object to it. Nevertheless, he sets forth a very thorough primer on the hearsay and authentication issues under the Federal Rules of Evidence, given potential concern with the taxpayer’s pro se status. He finds that form falls into the FRE 803(6) exception of a regularly conducted activity, and that it is a self-authenticating document record under FRE 902(11). Rather than describe the details here, I strongly suggest you read Judge Gustafson’s order in full.

The other motion is fairly interesting. Apparently, petitioner deducted $7,400 on his return as a charitable contribution. The Notice of Deficiency disallowed this in full. Petitioner fully conceded this issue, so this should have been a $7,400 adjustment, right?

Well, petitioner also submitted an amended return to IRS counsel at some point, which reported a reduced charitable contribution of $4,700. The Service never processed this return, but somehow it wound up before Judge Gustafson as an exhibit.

Judge Gustafson disposed of this case via a bench opinion. He orally noted that the Notice of Deficiency’s $7,400 adjustment appeared incorrect, looking as he was at the $4,700 deduction apparently claimed on Schedule A of the amended return.

As with most Tax Court cases, this one is ultimately resolved under Rule 155. The Court itself doesn’t determine the ultimate tax result; instead, the Service issues a computation based on the Court’s decision. Here, the computations came back with a $7,400 deduction. Substantively correct—but in violation of Judge Gustafson’s decision in the bench opinion.

That’s a no-no under Rule 155. Rule 155(c) specifically proscribes reconsideration of the decision itself. It’s “not a remedy for correcting errors.” Indeed, it’s difficult to intuitively ascertain whether an adjustment of this sort appears in a Rule 155 computation; indeed, there’s nothing that would “flag” the issue, as a more substantive motion would. So, in response to the Rule 155 motion, Judge Gustafson orders the IRS to show cause why there should not be a supplemental computation reducing the adjustment to $4,700, as originally decided in the bench opinion.

This may all seem like a lot of work to get to the wrong tax result. But there’s an important principle that emerges: the Service may not simply correct the Tax Court’s error by fiat through computations. If the Service (or petitioner) believes a decision to be wrongly decided, they must either move for reconsideration or appeal, so that the Court can fully consider respondent’s arguments, hear any objections from petitioner, and firmly decide the ultimate liability. While he suggests that the Court may have jurisdiction to reconsider the decision sua sponte, he declines to do so. (It also appears Judge Gustafson exhibits some reticence to a now very untimely motion for reconsideration).

To date the Service has not responded substantively to this order, but has received additional time to do so. We will keep an eye on further developments here.

Comments

  1. Norman Diamond says:

    When both spouses sign a Request for CDP Hearing, and the Settlement Officer issues a Notice of Determination to one spouse only, and both spouses sign a Tax Court petition, the IRS moves to dismiss from the case the spouse that the IRS didn’t issue a Notice of Determination to. Tax Court grants the motion by issuing an order only to the spouse who doesn’t get dismissed. Tax Court denies the dismissed spouse’s motion for service of notices. Tax Court rules that the dismissed spouse isn’t subject to the determination because the IRS didn’t send her a notice, but that the dismissed spouse IS subject to the Tax Court order despite the Tax Court not sending her a notice, and maybe the dismissed spouse is supposed to learn this state of affairs by mental telepathy.

    When Tax Court orders that the IRS shall not proceed with collection as determined in the notice, does that mean that the IRS is allowed to proceed with collection from the other spouse? No one seems to know for sure. Tax Court lost jurisdiction 90 days after issuing the order prohibiting collection, and the IRS waited several more months after that before making a partial collection from one or the other or both spouses. The IRS didn’t issue a notice saying it was making that collection so no one seems to know which spouse, or whether it was both spouses, were collected from, and no one seems to know which spouse, or whether it was both spouses, had the collected funds applied to their account before the IRS destroyed records of the collection. No court accepts jurisdiction to order a refund.

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